Since Garlin Gilchrist (BSE EE ’05) left U-M, his path has crossed into a variety of different realms. He helped Microsoft make Sharepoint the company’s fastest growing product, worked on the Obama campaign in Washington State, helped the City of Detroit build a smartphone app that gave citizens a voice in their government and returned to U-M in 2018 to found the Center for Social Media Responsibility. Now, he’s bringing his tech-savvy approach to a bigger stage, having taken the oath of office as Michigan’s lieutenant governor on January 3.
Gretchen Whitmer, now Michigan’s governor, announced Gilchrist as her running mate in August. Prior to that moment, his only previous run for elected office was a narrow loss for Detroit city clerk in 2017.
“I wanted someone who’s got my back, someone who works as hard as I do, that has integrity and knows how to get things done,” Whitmer said at the time. “And Garlin Gilchrist fits all those requirements to the max. He’s the exact kind of partner I need to make this state government work for the people again.”
Gilchrist’s first brush with the public sector came in 2014 with a post as Detroit’s deputy director for civic community engagement. He helped build and promote the Improve Detroit smartphone app, which enabled any resident with a cellphone to take a picture, describe an issue – anything from downed trees to potholes to illegal dumping – and report it directly to the city. In two years, 67,000 issues had been addressed via Improve Detroit. The post enabled Gilchrist to bring his engineer’s mindset to a different set of problems.
“Essentially, what computer science and computer engineering ask is, ‘How can you make technology do the thing that you want it to do?’” he said. “How can you point it at a problem you think is worth solving, and then make it solve that problem?”
“It was the only institution that literally touched every person in Detroit,” Gilchrist said. “Government dealt with everybody. No company could say that. No non-profit. No institution of higher learning.”
Gilchrist’s interest in technology began early, when he received his first computer at the age of five.
“As a parent myself now, I really appreciate how my parents let that computer truly be mine,” Gilchrist said. “They let me control it – did not restrict what I did to it. What ended up happening is I saw this computer as something that I was able to control versus something that controlled me. I could make it do something.”
Whitmer and Gilchrist have laid out clear goals for their administration, such as tackling Michigan’s long-ignored infrastructure, improving education and improving access to health care – all things you’d hear from most politicians. But Gilchrist wants the approach to be different.
“One of the questions that’s important to the governor and me is, ‘How do we bring the state of Michigan and its governance into the 21st century?’” Gilchrist said. “I have some direct experience doing that type of thing. I think working with the individuals in state government and those who join it, we’ll be able to make some strides.”